French lessons

The huge vote for the National Front (FN) in yesterday’s French presidential elections is a salutary reminder of the threat posed by the fascist parties.

Provisional results suggest that Marine Le Pen secured 18.01% of the vote on a turnout of 80.16%. This is higher than the 16.86% of the vote secured by her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, in the 2002 election when he came second, making his way to the second round.

While anti-fascists (and anybody with any sense) should breath a sigh of relief that the FN did not make it to the second round again we should not assume that the threat the party pose has disappeared. The most immediate danger is the influence it will exert on the political mainstream.

According to the Guardian, “Sarkozy had run a rightwing campaign from the outset, chasing voters on the extreme right by focusing on immigration, saying there were too many foreigners in France and following Le Pen’s lead in claiming unlabelled halal meat was a key concern of French voters. He had recently stressed conservative family values and the Christian heritage of France.”

Having failed to win the first round (the first president in modern France to do so) he is on the back foot and there is a danger that he will swing even further to the right order to try and pick up some of Le Pen’s voters. FN supporters are strongly anti-establishment so it is far from guaranteed that Le Pen votes will transfer to Sarkozy in real numbers, but by that point the damage will have been done.

This is not a trend unique to the France, as Sean Birchall notes, “Unlike its 1930s forebears, what characterises fascism today is not the ‘putsch’ but what anti-fascists have referred to as ‘the drift'” (Beating the Fascists, p17). The potential impact of this drift is apparent in Denmark. There, the far-right People’s Party (PP) secured 12.0% of the vote in 2001 and shored up a Conservative-Liberal coalition. In exchange for their cooperation, the coalition adopted a number of the PP’s key demands, crucially strong restrictions on immigration. As a result, Denmark has what the PP has described as Europe’s strictest immigration laws. (Danish TV series The Killing II features a dramatised account of the same process pushing a relatively liberal government to adopt authoritarian anti-terrorist measures.)

Even in the UK where far-right electoral success remains modest, we have seen fascists exerting a rightward pull on mainstream parties. In 2007, Margaret Hodge Labour MP for Barking, where the BNP had made considerable gains, sought to take on the BNP on their own territory by arguing that British residents should get priority in council house allocation.

Nobody should assume that these sorts of concessions constitute an anti-fascist strategy. Swinging to the right can only serve to legitimise far-right ideas and give confidence to their practitioners. In any case, once the mainstream have conceded enough to the far-right, voters may well ask themselves why they don’t just vote for the real thing anyway.

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